March 31, 2016

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to be a playoff team?

Last year the Twins emerged from the wreckage of four consecutive 90-loss seasons sooner than anticipated, out-performing expectations by climbing above .500 in Paul Molitor's rookie season as manager. Miguel Sano immediately established himself as the big bat around which the lineup can be built, leading the way for a deep, upside-rich farm system that's ready to stock the Twins' roster with young talent for years to come. It's a fun time to be a Twins fan again.

However, rather than build on that momentum and their sooner-than-expected contender status by making a series of significant offseason moves to beef up the roster the Twins basically stood pat. They went outside the box to replace Torii Hunter in the lineup by spending $25 million on Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and addressed the organization-wide lack of catching depth by trading Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. And that was it.

No significant additions were made to a pitching staff that was 10th among AL teams in ERA last season after ranking dead last from 2011-2014 and one of the team's best second-half pitchers, Tyler Duffey, was sent back to Triple-A in favor of contractual albatross Ricky Nolasco. Rumors that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to open up third base never materialized and led to their shifting the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Sano to right field despite zero outfield experience.

Aside from some minor tinkering, the Twins' offseason consisted of two moves and was over by December 1. And while the perception is that the Twins are a young team on the rise thanks to Sano and an impressive farm system, the actual Opening Day roster is heavy on veterans. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the rotation at 28, the average age of the pitching staff is 30, and only three of the nine Opening Day hitters are younger than 27.

Their relative inactivity leaves plenty of room for criticism, particularly on the pitching side, and the front office's decades-long conservative streak always offers a viable explanation. With that said, the Twins' disinterest in adding even moderately priced veterans to an 83-win team is easy to explain: Terry Ryan and company are convinced the young talent they've stockpiled through all the losing is now ready to turn the Twins into winners. Just not right away, apparently.

Jose Berrios is an elite pitching prospect and many teams would have promoted him in the middle of last season, but he's back at Triple-A with Duffey for a second go-around because the Twins spent the past two offseasons handing out long-term deals to mediocre starters. Based on service time considerations the Twins should be planning for Berrios to debut in late April or early May, but that makes the shaky assumption that they'll be ready to ditch veterans by then.

Bypassing the many veteran relievers available via trades and free agency may hurt the Twins in the short term, but they clearly believe that by midseason at least one or two good bullpen arms will step forward from a group of hard-throwing prospects that includes Nick Burdi, Alex Meyer, Brandon Peterson, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Luke Bard. They had similar hopes heading into last year and the payoff was non-existent, but Burdi looks especially close to the majors now.

If by midseason Berrios and Duffey are leading the rotation turnaround and Burdi or Meyer have joined Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen setting up for Glen Perkins then the lack of offseason pitching moves will look prescient. If instead Rochester's pitching staff is thriving and Minnesota's pitching staff is again among the league's worst the fingers will point themselves. Right now the Twins' pitching looks mediocre at best, but the cavalry is coming. Or at least that's the plan.

Offensively most of the cavalry has already arrived and the young, crazy talented starting outfield of 22-year-old stud prospect Byron Buxton flanked by 23-year-old Sano and 24-year-old Eddie Rosario may tell the story of the 2016 season. That trio has the potential to be the Twins' three best players, but Buxton has yet to prove himself as a hitter, Rosario's lack of discipline threatens to stall his development, and Sano's right field sojourn threatens his health and the team ERA.

Here's the beauty of the Twins' farm system: They also have 23-year-old outfielder Max Kepler, a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an MVP-winning campaign at Double-A, waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Their outfield options are so young, so talented, and so plentiful that Oswaldo Arcia--a 25-year-old former top prospect with a .741 OPS in the majors--is an afterthought. If the Twins take a big step forward this season the young outfield figures to be a driving force.

Park is neither young nor inexperienced, winning a pair of MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea through age 28, but he's an MLB rookie for whom outlooks vary wildly. Based on his Hall of Fame numbers in Korea, the scouting reports from people who watched him there, and his spring training showing it's clear that Park will hit for big-time power, but that power will likely come with tons of strikeouts and a modest batting average.

For years the Twins' lineup was lefty dominated, but adding Sano and Park to Plouffe and Brian Dozier has swung the balance to the right side. In fact, this might be the most right-handed pop any Twins lineup has ever featured and Target Field is an ideal home for right-handed power. Six of the nine Opening Day hitters are right-handed, along with switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar and lefties Joe Mauer and Rosario.

Mauer simply hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in August of 2013 and at age 33 the odds are heavily stacked against him being more than an above-average first baseman, but his on-base skills are desperately needed in a lineup long on power and short on OBP. Last year Sano and Mauer were the only Twins to crack a .330 on-base percentage and all the right-handed power bats need base-runners to drive in.

Escobar has quietly been one of the best shortstops in Twins history whenever they've actually given him a chance to play the position regularly, hitting .285/.331/.452 with solid defense in 203 career starts. For decades the Twins have repeatedly failed to find competent offensive shortstops, but Escobar is a switch-hitter with plus power for the position and has the ability to lengthen the lineup considerably. He's turned a lot of people--me included--from doubters to believers.

Nearly every hitter in the lineup comes attached to a question mark because of inexperience or injuries and that makes it tough to feel confident predicting how the offense will fare overall, but it's impossible to ignore how much young upside, right-handed power, and depth the Twins have assembled. If they get any sort of decent bottom-of-the-order production from the catcher spot and Buxton the Twins are going to score a bunch of runs.

And they'll need to, because the pitching staff with by far the fewest strikeouts in baseball since 2008 is again lacking the same type of upside and power that fills the lineup. There is some depth in that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Gibson are solid veteran starters and May, Jepsen, and Perkins are a strong bullpen trio, but at a time when MLB-wide strikeouts and velocity have never been higher the Twins simply lack firepower.

That could change if Berrios and Burdi receive quick call-ups and thrive right away, but counting on two prospects who've never thrown a pitch in the big leagues to drag an entire staff kicking and screaming into the power pitching era is probably wishful thinking. Molitor keeping the lesser starters on a short leash could be crucial, because turning games over to fresher, harder-throwing relievers often makes more sense than risking another trip through a lineup past 75 pitches.


Based on the Opening Day roster the Twins look mediocre, with an above-average offense and a below-average pitching staff. Based on the much younger, higher-upside roster they could begin transitioning to as soon as late April the Twins absolutely have a chance to build on last season's surprising success by making a run at the AL Central title. They just need to trust the youth and have it pay off. And here's the best part: This figures to be the worst Twins team for a long time.

March 1, 2016

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2016: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Also in this series: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

5. Nick Gordon | Shortstop | DOB: 10/95 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2014-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2014     RK+    255     .294     .333     .366      1     11     11     45
2015     A-     535     .277     .336     .360      1     31     39     88

Selected fifth overall in the 2014 draft out of a Florida high school and signed for $3.85 million, shortstop Nick Gordon followed up a solid pro debut at rookie-ball with an up-and-down first full season at low Single-A. Gordon got off to a rough start, hitting .230 in 45 games through the end of May. He played well from then on, hitting .304 in 75 games after June 1. His overall .696 OPS looks modest, but was actually above the Midwest League average of .682 as a 19-year-old.

Through two seasons Gordon has shown his natural ability with a .282 batting average, but has shown his inexperience with a 133/50 K/BB ratio and his iffy power potential with two homers in 177 games. Also of note is that Gordon grounded into 29 double plays--including a league-leading 20 last season--which is an incredibly high total for a speedy 19-year-old left-handed hitter who stole 36 bases during that same time. He's putting the ball on the ground a lot.

Simply holding his own offensively as a teenage shortstop at low Single-A is an accomplishment for Gordon, whose father Tom Gordon and brother Dee Gordon have both been All-Stars in the majors. He was named the best defensive shortstop by Midwest League managers, although some reviews wonder if he'll be able to handle the position long term or will need to shift to second base eventually like his brother did. He'll take on high Single-A this year.

4. Byung Ho Park | First Base | DOB: 7/86 | Bats: Right | Sign: Korea

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     KBO    556     .318     .437     .602     37     54     92     96
2014     KBO    571     .303     .433     .686     52     70     96    142
2015     KBO    622     .343     .436     .714     53     89     78    161

As a 29-year-old with two MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea he's far from a standard prospect, but Byung Ho Park is technically an MLB rookie and thus qualifies for this list. Signed to a four-year, $12 million contract after the Twins won the bidding for his exclusive negotiating rights for an additional $12.85 million, Park is slated to be the Opening Day designated hitter and occasional first baseman. And hopefully a middle-of-the-order bat.

Park's numbers in Korea were incredible, including hitting .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games last season to top a 1.000 OPS for the third straight year. His power potential is massive and his spray chart suggests he's capable of going deep from foul pole to foul pole. Park also hit for big batting averages in Korea, but in doing so he struck out a ton and because of that it'd be tough to expect that to continue for the Twins without a change in approach.

Numbers-based projections for Park are highly encouraging, viewing him as a legit slugger who draws enough walks to offset a poor batting average, but because there are so few KBO-to-MLB or MLB-to-KBO data points on which to rely the confidence levels are low. Given the Twins' relatively modest investment Park simply being an average hitter would pay big dividends and the potential is there for him to be much more.

3. Max Kepler | Right Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     A-     263     .237     .312     .424      9     23     24     43
2014     A+     407     .264     .333     .393      5     31     34     62
2015     AA     482     .322     .416     .531      9     54     67     63

Max Kepler's raw talent has rarely been in question since the Twins signed him out of Germany for $800,000 as a 16-year-old, but injuries and underwhelming on-field production kept him from emerging as a top prospect. That all changed in a huge way last year, as he hit .322/.416/.531 in 112 games at Double-A to lead the Southern League in OPS and be named MVP as a 22-year-old. He debuted with the Twins in late September, collecting his first career hit off Johnny Cueto.

Kepler's performance was nearly flawless. He hit .323 off righties and .318 off lefties, walked more than he struck out, went 18-of-22 stealing bases, and did all that while facing pitchers older than him 90 percent of the time. His homer total was modest, but Kepler smacked 54 extra-base hits in fewer than 500 at-bats and his solid 6-foot-4 frame should lead to more bombs. While they were Chattanooga teammates Kepler had a .947 OPS and Miguel Sano had a .918 OPS.

Kepler has been primarily a center fielder in the minors, which speaks to his athleticism, but long term he projects as a corner outfielder with plus range. If the power develops Kepler has a chance to be a star and even if he tops out at 10-15 homers per season his all-around skill set is enough to make him a very good everyday player. He'll begin this season at Triple-A and could force his way to Minnesota by the All-Star break. Kepler would be the No. 1 prospect for a lot of teams.

2. Jose Berrios | Starter | DOB: 5/94 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     A-     19     19     3.99     103.2     105      6     100     40
2014     A+     16     16     1.96      96.1      78      4     109     23
         AA      8      8     3.54      40.2      33      2      28     12
2015     AA     15     15     3.08      90.2      77      6      92     24
         AAA    12     12     2.62      75.2      59      6      83     14

Jose Berrios was selected by the Twins out of a Puerto Rico high school with the 30th pick in the 2012 draft--28 spots after they snagged Byron Buxton--and four years later he's on the verge of the majors. Actually, he seemed on the verge of the majors this time last year, but the Twins took an extremely conservative approach to handling Berrios by sending him back to Double-A for the first half and then citing workload limits for a lack of August or September call-up to Minnesota.

Instead of making his MLB debut Berrios logged 166 innings at Double-A and Triple-A with a 3.03 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio as a 21-year-old, leading all of minor-league baseball in strikeouts while facing hitters older than him in 655 of 667 plate appearances. Despite a slight frame Berrios has mid-90s velocity, plus a pair of quality off-speed pitches that allowed the right-hander to fare better versus lefties than righties in 2015.

Berrios has improved his strikeout rate, walk rate, and durability on an annual basis while moving up the organizational ladder and from both a statistical and raw stuff standpoint he shines as the best Twins pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Many teams would have called up Berrios last year, but the Twins will send him back to Triple-A for even more seasoning while delaying the start of his service time. If he's not one of the Twins' best starters by June something went wrong.

1. Byron Buxton | Center Field | DOB: 12/93 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     A-     321     .341     .431     .559      8     33     44     56
         A+     253     .326     .415     .472      4     16     32     49
2014     A+     134     .240     .313     .405      4     10     10     33
2015     AA     268     .283     .351     .489      6     25     26     51
         AAA     59     .400     .441     .545      1      5      4     12
         MLB    138     .209     .250     .326      2     10      6     44

Because he struggled and got injured in his MLB debut a too-large segment of Twins fans soured on Byron Buxton, but soon enough he'll make those same people impossible to find. There's no disputing that Buxton had a rough first taste of the majors and has had trouble staying healthy, making him an imperfect prospect. However, hitting .305/.367/.500 at Double-A and Triple-A as a 21-year-old center fielder with jaw-dropping speed also solidified his status as a great prospect.

Buxton's inability to control the strike zone led to an ugly 44/6 K/BB ratio with the Twins, but his plate discipline wasn't awful so much as misguided. He actually showed decent patience, but too often laid off hittable pitches only to chase two-strike junk. It's a common problem for rookies and Buxton's track record shows he's anything but an undisciplined hacker. It may take a little more time, but if Buxton controls the strike zone the rest of his skill set screams superstar.

His range is spectacular, his arm is well above average, and he's one of MLB's fastest players. All of which means he doesn't need to be an impact bat to have huge value, but Buxton might be an impact bat too. In the minors he's hit .301 with a solid walk rate and once his lanky frame fills out 20 homers per year is doable along with tons of triples. Don't let a lack of current polish fool you into thinking Buxton is anything but an elite prospect with massive all-around upside.

December 1, 2015

Twins spend $25 million to add Korean slugger Byung Ho Park

Three weeks after placing the high bid of $12.85 million to secure an exclusive, 30-day negotiating window with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park the Twins signed the 29-year-old first baseman to a four-year, $12 million contract that includes a $6.5 million team option for a fifth year. It's a very team-friendly deal and reports from Korea suggest that Park felt the Twins low-balled him during negotiations but basically just accepted anyway because he wants to play in MLB.

Certainly a total commitment of $24.85 million is not insignificant and there's still plenty of risk associated with Park because he's untested in America, but $6 million per season for a starting designated hitter/first baseman is well below the market rate. Last offseason Billy Butler signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the A's, Adam LaRoche signed a two-year, $25 million deal with the White Sox, and Kendrys Morales signed a two-year, $17 million deal with the Royals.

LaRoche was 35 years old and coming off a good but not great season, while Butler and Morales were both coming off career-worst years at ages 29 and 32 respectively. None of the three free agents were hot commodities and yet their their average annual salaries are $12.5 million, $10 million, and $8.5 million. You get the idea. Park could have turned down the Twins' offer and remained in Korea, but chose to start his MLB career without waiting another year.

Last offseason Jung Ho Kang became the first prominent hitter to go from the Korean Baseball Organization to MLB when the Pirates bid $5 million for his rights and signed him to a four-year, $11 million contract. Kang had a fantastic rookie year, hitting .287/.355/.461 in 126 games split between shortstop and third base, and the assumption was that his success would give American teams more confidence investing in Korean hitters and raise Park's price tag.

And it did, raising the posting fee from $5 million to $12.85 million, but Park's actual contract is for the same length and just $1 million more than Kang's deal while also including a fifth year of team control at a modest salary. If the Twins believe Park has star potential than this signing has a chance to be an incredible bargain and even if he turns into merely an average player they will still have dramatically underpaid.

Park is a two-time MVP winner in Korea and finished runner-up for the award this year, hitting .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games. His high strikeout rate and the lack of previous KBO-to-MLB data points beyond Kang make any statistical projections even more of a guessing game than usual, but Park's raw power is universally regarded as outstanding and at $6 million per season for four years the risk taken by the Twins barely makes a dent in their payroll plans.

This year all MLB first basemen and designated hitters combined to bat .260 with a .335 on-base percentage and .445 slugging percentage, so Park need not duplicate his crazy KBO numbers to provide major value to team that has struggled to develop power hitters for decades. Ultimately the bar for evaluating Park's performance should be judged on that first base/DH baseline as well as who the Twins move to make room for him in the lineup.

There are two clear options. One is trading third baseman Trevor Plouffe and shifting Miguel Sano to third base to open DH for Park. In that scenario the Twins would downgrade defensively, but could upgrade offensively if Park tops Plouffe's modest .244/.307/.435 production and would get value back in the trade. Another option is keeping Plouffe, at least for now, and giving Sano regular action in the outfield following the trade of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees.

Other options exist and surely there will be unrealistic but vocal calls for the Twins make room for Park by parting ways with Joe Mauer despite $69 million remaining on his contract, but trading Plouffe or turning Sano into an outfielder are the realistic solutions. For any of those scenarios to work out well the Twins and their international scouts need to right about Park and that's a risk, but given his power potential and the surprisingly reasonable price tag it's one worth taking.


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November 11, 2015

Twins secure Byung-ho Park negotiating rights with $12.85 million bid

Byung-ho Park

In one of the most unexpected, out-of-nowhere moves in team history the Twins out-bid 29 other MLB teams for exclusive negotiating rights to Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park. Their high bid was $12.85 million, which goes to his Korean Baseball Organization team for a 30-day window in which to negotiate a separate contract with Park. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement the $12.85 million would be refunded to the Twins in full and Park would remain in Korea.

Park has won multiple MVP awards and had a monster 2015 in which he hit .343/.436/.714 with 53 homers in 140 games, so MLB teams bidding for the 29-year-old's rights has been a fairly big story. Nearly every team was linked to Park and national reporters whittled down possible landing spots by identifying 26 of 30 teams as not the high bidders. Monday morning people started doing the Twins-related math and about an hour later news broke that they were the winners.

There are three key questions surrounding Park right now. One is the Twins' chances of actually signing him and how much he'll cost if they do, which is difficult to predict other than to say they intend to sign him and the price tag figures to be reasonable compared to MLB free agents. Last offseason the Pirates won the negotiating rights to Korean shortstop Jung Ho Kang for $5 million and signed him to a four-year, $11 million deal, but Kang's success raised the bar for Park.

Assuming he signs the next question is how he fits in the lineup. It's not a seamless fit given the existing logjam of first basemen, corner outfielders, and designated hitters, but there are simple solutions. Two weeks ago I wrote about the possibility of trading third baseman Trevor Plouffe and moving Miguel Sano to third base, which would open up the DH spot for Park or Joe Mauer. Recently the Twins have talked about giving Sano some outfield action, which might also work.

Whatever the case, getting Park's right-handed power bat into the lineup is certainly doable and the Twins clearly believe he has big-time upside. His jaw-dropping raw numbers during the past three seasons include hitting .322 with an 1.100 OPS while averaging 55 homers and 100 walks per 150 games, but beyond that the Twins have scouted Park extensively in Korea and feel his skill set will translate to middle-of-the-order power in America.

Their scouts may be proven wrong and the lack of data points for KBO-to-MLB transitions makes accurate statistical projections even more difficult than usual, but Kang's success with the Pirates this year is reason for optimism and if nothing else everyone seems to agree that Park has huge raw power. His ability to control the strike zone and make consistent contact are both potential red flags, but the same can be said of untested-in-MLB power hitters from any country.

Park is a gamble, but the money being invested isn't especially huge in an MLB-wide context and he can provide a sizable payoff without even approaching his absurd numbers in Korea. This year MLB first basemen and DHs combined to hit .260/.335/.445. Plouffe has hit .245/.308/.420 for his career. Oswaldo Arcia is at .243/.305/.437. Kennys Vargas is at .259/.299/.408. You get the idea. Those are the standards to which Park should be held.

Park wasn't just good in Korea, he was special. For three years he hit .320 with 50-homer power and 100-walk plate discipline, producing an OPS that led the KBO in 2013, ranked second behind Kang in 2014, and ranked second behind Eric Thames in 2015. Kang headed to America after leading the KBO in OPS two years ago and then hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers in 126 games for the Pirates as a 28-year-old rookie, including .310/.364/.548 in the second half.

Thames did the opposite, going to the KBO after struggling to establish himself in MLB as an American-born former Blue Jays prospect and because of that he provides a much less optimistic example. However, even Thames isn't necessarily cause for Park pessimism. For one thing he was hardly a disaster in MLB, hitting .250/.296/.431 with 21 homers in 181 games. Thames' career OPS in MLB is .727. By comparison, Plouffe's career OPS is .728.

Beyond that Thames received fewer than 700 plate appearances in the majors, last played in MLB at age 25, and hit .312/.389/.506 in 200 career games at Triple-A. Considering he posted a .727 OPS in limited playing time through age 25 after faring well at Triple-A it's not a stretch to think he eventually would have developed into a .750-.800 OPS hitter if given more opportunity. At the very least, Thames thriving in Korea isn't reason to brush off Park thriving in Korea.

Obviously the Twins are hoping Park hits .290 with 30 homers and lots of walks. Because of his high strikeout rate in Korea and the uncertainty surrounding his skill set attached to the elite raw power it's also possible he'll fit more into the category of low-average, high-power righty bats like Mike Napoli and Josh Willingham on the high end or Mark Reynolds and Chris Carter on the low end. And there are viable worst-case scenarios too, of course.

Ultimately this comes down to the Twins' international scouting department properly evaluating Park's potential. There's plenty of reason to be skeptical about that related to their track record and Park specifically, but the cost to find out is likely in the same middle range as contracts they gave to "proven" MLB veterans like Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, and Ricky Nolasco. And if they're right about Park the Twins get a middle-of-the-order bat for a below-market price tag.


For a lot more about Park and the domino effect his arrival has on the Twins' lineup and offseason plans, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.